Strategies to Help Engage Reluctant Readers in Reading

Kids reading a comic book in schoolEvery parent and teacher wants their children to be avid readers. Because we know the benefits of reading we want our children to embrace it as we have. While a good many children do become excited and engaged in reading (especially in the primary grades), some are reluctant and disinterested. While a child may not show a natural interest in reading, this does not mean that he cannot become a skilled and even enthusiastic reader. There are a number of things that parents and teachers can do to help engage reluctant readers.

What is a reluctant reader?

A reluctant reader is anyone who does not show interest in reading. There is a wide range within the category of reluctant readers. A reluctant reader may simply be a child who needs to be coaxed into reading texts. She may also be the child who vehemently refuses to read. Reluctant readers sometimes hide their ambivalence towards reading using other behaviors. A teacher may notice that a certain student always becomes the class clown when it is time to begin independent reading. Similarly, parents may notice that their child seems to become “naughtier” when he is asked to sit and read a book aloud. When children mask their negative attitudes towards reading by using other behaviors parents and teachers need to do a little “detective work” to identify the root cause of the problem.

While any child, young or old, male or female can be a reluctant reader the largest number of unenthusiastic readers are adolescent boys. Research shows that a good number of boys who were avid readers in the elementary grades become disinterested in reading during their middle school years. Though there are a number of factors which may contribute to this shift (increasing complexity of material, peer pressure) one of the primary reasons seems to be that they fail to see the connection between reading and “real” life.

Strategies to Help Engage Reluctant Readers in Reading

Identify the root cause of the reluctance

Before you can select which strategy you will use to support a reluctant reader you need to know why he or she is disengaged from reading. Observe the child when he is approaching a reading task. Does he avoid it all together or does he begin but become frustrated and abandon it? Also, watch for what he does while he is reading. Does he use strategies to help decipher text or does he seem to not know how to work through it? What areas does he have the most difficult with while reading—decoding, vocabulary, comprehension? Does he just seem uninterested in the content or is he actually having difficulty reading it?

Once you have identified what the root cause of the reader’s reluctance is you can select the appropriate intervention. If the child seems to have difficulty processing texts or appears to be well below grade level in her reading skills, this is a good time to refer her for additional support services. Each school and district has its own procedures for referrals. Parents who have concerns should contact their child’s teacher to talk about placing a referral. If the cause seems to be based on interest rather than skills, the parent or teacher should select a strategy to help engage and excite the child in reading.

Specialized Reading Services

If a child is having difficulty processing what they are reading they may become reluctant to read. Because they are unsuccessful at reading they will avoid it. In order to encourage them to read they need support developing essential reading skills. Reading Specialists are usually available at least on a part time basis at each school. Many elementary schools have full time Reading Specialists. Parents and teachers can contact these specialists to discuss what services would best help their reluctant readers. Reading Specialists may suggest pull out services such as a small group reading class taught by the specialist which targets specific basic reading skills or they may be able to offer strategies for the parents or teachers to use with their children.

If the child is diagnosed as having a learning disability that affects his reading abilities he will often receive pull out special education reading classes. These classes are taught by a teacher who is trained in supporting young readers with learning disabilities. S/he will use strategies that target each child’s specific reading needs.

Individualize Reading Instruction and Experiences

When a processing problem is not causing reluctance towards reading, parents and teachers are often at a loss for why a child will not read. Often times readers have difficulty connecting to the texts they are reading. They see the experience of reading as simply tracking words on the page. When they become engaged with a text they begin seeing the power of reading.

Parents and teachers should individualize their reading instruction focusing on the specific skills that each child needs support in. In the classroom there are often at least a few students who show weaknesses in the same areas. Teachers should conduct small group reading lessons targeting particular areas where the children in the group need help. At home, parents should work with their child on the specific skills that she is working to develop.

Beyond this, a child’s reading experiences should be individualized. There is not one text that fits all students. Therefore parents and teachers should seek out stories that appeal to their children’s personal interests. Children need to “see” themselves in what they read. If they cannot relate to the situations and characters in a text they will have more difficulty staying engaged with the text and thus will struggle with comprehension. When adults help children pick reading materials that reflect their lives, interests and personalities they will become more and more interested in reading.

High Interest Reading Material

Sometimes young people, especially adolescents, become disengaged from reading because they lose interest in the content of the texts they are reading. Many traditional books assigned in schools as well as textbooks fail to capture the interest of today’s children because they are used to fast paced movies, video games and Internet sites. Parents and teachers can employ high interest reading materials to help spark an interest in reading in these children. High interest texts are usually fairly non-traditional. They often focus on “edgy” topics or include a great deal of action. In addition, they may not look like a traditional book. There are a number of excellent graphic novels and higher-level picture books that are designed to engage reluctant readers. While it may seem that these texts “dumb down” reading, they do not. They may be slightly below a reader’s independent reading level, but they provide valuable experiences with reading. Plus, they can serve as a stepping stone towards more traditional and sophisticated texts. The goal in using high interest reading materials is to jump start a reluctant reader’s interest in reading.

Role Modeling

The power of modeling successful and enjoyable reading experiences for reluctant readers cannot be denied. Many times adolescents will stop reading because it ceases to be “cool”. Group acceptance is an important aspect of an adolescent’s life. They do not see their friends and idols reading so they do not read. When those a reluctant reader looks up to model reading and reinforce its importance she is more likely to begin reading.

Strategies for Supporting Boys

Because boys seem to be more likely than girls to become reluctant readers research has been conducted to determine what causes them to turn their backs on reading. Researchers have found that many boys stop reading because they do not see practical applications for reading. They look for immediate uses for what they learn. When they read texts where universal themes or highly fictionalized stories are presented they fail to see the purpose in reading. There is nothing “useful” in these texts. Therefore it has been suggested that those working with reluctant male readers offer them practical texts to engage their interest. These include manuals, non-fiction picture books, Internet sites and technology-based interactive texts. Such materials make reading useful to boys again. Then they are much more apt to continue reading in the future.